Some residents in Manatee County, Florida, were evacuated from their homes over Easter weekend because authorities cited fears that a sewage pond could collapse “at any moment.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the area on Saturday.
County officials said the pond, located in the old Piney Point phosphate processing plant, has a “significant leak,” according to CBS affiliate WTSP-TV. Manatee County Department of Public Safety He said people close to the plant to evacuate due to an “imminent uncontrolled release of sewage.”
“A portion of the retaining wall at the leak site moved laterally,” said Manatee Public Safety Director Jake Saur, “meaning that structural collapse could occur at any time.”
The Manatee County Department of Public Safety initially sent emergency evacuation notices on Friday for those within a mile of Piney Point, and by 11 a.m. Saturday, evacuation orders were extended to people inside. a mile north of the deposit’s phosphorous gypsum piles, a fertilizer waste products – and those within a half-mile radius south of the site. The surrounding stretches of the highway were also closed to traffic.
Mandatory evacuations were extended an additional half mile west and one mile southwest of the site Saturday night. The Manatee County Department of Public Safety said 316 homes are within the entire evacuation area.
Phosphorous gypsum is the “radioactive waste” left over from the processing of phosphate ore into a state that can be used as a fertilizer, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater may also contain carcinogens and toxic heavy metals,” the Center said in a statement Saturday. “For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphorous gypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous piles hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet high.”
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in a statement On Saturday the “public should heed that notice to avoid damage.”
Officials are on site conducting a controlled release of water, approximately 22,000 gallons per minute.
The water currently being pumped by officials to prevent a total collapse is a mixture of seawater from a local dredging project, rainwater, and rain runoff. The water has not been treated.
“The water meets the water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,” the state said in a statement. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried wrote a letter to DeSantis on Saturday urging an emergency session of the Florida Cabinet to discuss the situation. She wrote that the leaking water is “contaminated and radioactive wastewater” and noted that this leak is not the first on the property.
“For more than fifty years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental incidents and disasters,” Fried wrote. “There have been numerous well-documented failures, continuing today, in the property’s tank lining, including leaks, poor welds, holes, cracks and weaknesses that existed prior to the purchase by the current owner, HRK Holdings, and that have gotten worse ever since. ”
Video of a Manatee County commissioners meeting provided information on what happened before the leak. On Thursday afternoon, Jeff Barath, a representative for HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, appeared emotionally distraught as he briefed Manatee County commissioners on the situation.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. He told commissioners that he had only slept a few hours that week because he was trying to fix the situation, and through tears, he said he first noticed “increased conductivity within the site’s leak collection system” 10 days before the 22 of March. He said, it offers drainage around plaster piles.
He said he immediately notified the FDEP of his concerns.
“The water was changing around the leak. We went into a very aggressive monitoring program,” he said, to find out where the leak was coming from.
They found that the south side of the chimney system had “increased conductivity” and that the acidity of the water, which is normally around 4.6, had dropped to around 3.5, indicating a problem.
After a few days, the water chemistry had not improved and water flows increased from about 120 gallons per minute to more than 400 gallons per minute in less than 48 hours, Barath said. Last Saturday night, the flow rates increased at “rates that I could not even estimate,” he said.
The water was filling the basins so quickly that the ground began to rise, Barath said. This “bulge” temporarily stabilized but then spread hundreds of feet.
Barath submitted a report to the state on March 26, according to the state website “Protecting Florida Together,” which was created by DeSantis to allow for greater transparency on state water issues.
“I anticipated that the gypstack itself was destabilizing at a very rapid rate and I recommended that we consider an emergency discharge,” he told commissioners. He said he feared “overpressurizing” the system would result in “total failure”.
“I have spent most of my days and nights constantly monitoring all aspects of this gypstack system and identifying points of failure within it,” he said, noting that points of failure occurred “constantly, I mean hourly.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it ordered the company “to take immediate action” to prevent further leaks. On March 30, the Department He said that “the installation pipes are being repaired” and controlled discharges were started to avoid any pressure build-up.
However, according to Barath’s testimony at the meeting, the situation was far from over. He concluded his speech by saying that they were doing “everything possible to avoid a real catastrophe.”
On Friday, another leak was detected in the facility’s southern containment area. Despite overnight work to try to stop this and other leaks, Manatee Public Safety Director Jake Saur said Saturday the situation was “escalating.”